Lessons from the “Norquay Village Neighbourhood Centre Plan” (L Deschner)

Lessons for Vancouver: 5-Years of Trials and Tribulations in Community Consultation – Norquay Neighbours and the “Norquay Village Neighbourhood Centre Plan”

By Larry Deschner, Norquay Neighbours, November 4, 2010

Background: On November 4, 2010, after a controversial process taking nearly five years, thousands of hours of volunteer, consultant and City staff time, plus many meetings, and hundreds of thousands of dollars invested by Vancouver taxpayers, City Council adopted the staff report on the Norquay Village Neighbourhood Centre Plan despite strong local opposition. The process, its outcomes, and its outcomes are significant for all neighbourhoods and for the future of Vancouver. This essay by Larry Deschner of the local citizens’ group “Norquay Neighbours” describes what his group did, why it was formed, and what results it had. The background for this topic is a strongly-supported decision by the City in 1995 under “CityPlan” to create a city of neighbourhood centres.

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If you ask city planners what makes a “neighbourhood centre,” you will gleefully accept the words out of their mouths: neighbourhood shopping, a walkable community with amenities, enlarged green spaces, bike paths, and safety – all with “well designed” density.

The Kensington Cedar Cottage Community Vision approved by City Council in 1998 (Frazer to Nanaimo Streets and Broadway to 41st Avenue) worried Norquay Neighbours because it provided no permanent amenity, other than streetscaping.

Note that the word “neighbours” was is the key word in ”Norquay Neighbours.” People who live in neighbourhoods can generate a tremendous grass roots movements within a community, which can influence the actions of the city, and of developers.  Norquay Neighbours’ passion, knowledge and desire for an improved community vision is what created their participation, but these efforts were described in the City’s staff report to Council this way: “It should also be noted that the public process has been, in some ways, unusually challenging. Some neighbourhood residents have expressed strongly held oppositions to plan proposals presented at open houses and other community meetings. One group of residents (called Norquay Neighbours) has been particularly active with neighbourhood flyer distribution (identifying concerns with densification, ‘mass rezoning’, dramatic neighbourhood change, increased property taxes, decreased property values, increased crime, residents pushed out of the neighbourhood, and parking and traffic impacts), involvement with the working group, and developed of an alternative plan proposal in mid 2009.”

What was Norquay Neighbours doing? It was simply implementing an urban planning term know as “placemaking,” which has been defined as “a dynamic human function; it is an act of liberation, of staking claim; it is true human empowerment. Simply put, placemaking capitalizes on the local community’s greatest asset, its residents, to provide the inspiration, potential to ultimately create good public spaces that promote peoples health, happiness, and well being.”

Instead of simply taking the staff view that Norquay Neighbours caused problems in the process, discerning citizens should ask themselves why Norquay Neighbours came into existence. The answer to this question is that, after observing change occur in the Kensington Cedar Cottage neighbourhood after rezoning we realized it was just that, REZONING, and we rallied against these inconsistencies of what the planners were calling A PLANNING PROCESS.  Rezoning is when quote, “Unfortunately the way our communities are built today has become so institutionalized … Experience has shown that when developers and planners welcome as much grassroots involvement as possible, they spare themselves a lot of headaches.” Common problems like traffic-dominated streets, crime, and isolated, underperforming development projects, can be avoided by embracing the Placemaking perspective that views a place in its entirety, rather than zeroing in on isolated fragments of the whole, which is not to PLAN but simply to REZONE.

Did the effort of Norquay Neighbours make a difference, well lets hear from the Director of Planning, Brent Toderian, who stated, ‘the Norquay exercise has really illustrated to the planners that they didn’t necessarily have the best model for neighbourhood centre work.  The planners weren’t necessarily focussing on things the community wanted to talk about, the neighbourhood model was a bit inflexible, and the planning department has had to change their thinking with the Neighbourhood centres exercise rather than proceed with a very limited approach where the planners talk about rezoning and streetscaping improvement which was a really dissatisfying thing for the community to talk about.’

The result was hopeful when Mr. Toderian said this finally after just short of four years into the process, what happened in Mr. Toderian’s thinking, I’d like to think that he is the most capable, brilliant, dynamic Planner in the biz, because Vancouver deserves the best, and I know after dealing with the Planning Department and the Director of Planning in particular that we in Vancouver have the best technical assets possible for a planning department, “The STAFF”.  However, what is not in place is the best attitude towards community, and that is reflected in this report by the comments in the “Planning and Public Process” components of this report.

If our city’s technical assets would open their hearts to Placemaking, which breaks through this institutionalization of the rezoning process and shows planners, designers, and engineers how to move beyond their habit of looking at communities through the narrow lens of single-minded goals or rigid professional disciplines we would then have a ‘NEIGHBOURHOOD PLAN’ WOULD COULT SUPPORT because the key first step to any successful MODERN DAY PLANNING is to  listen to the best experts in the field—the people who live, work and play in a NEIGHBOURHOOD CENTRE, otherwise what we have is coined a ‘STONEAGE PLANNING PROCESS’.

What was the result of Norquay Neighbours determined, purposeful, grassroots debate with planners, all of which was stated by Norquay Neighbours throughout the process of 4 years, 8 months:

  1. Delivery of materials for the community was not left up to students anymore, it was mailed in all appropriate languages to the community.
  2. The planners who were working on the project were removed and new ones brought in who had different skills to contribute to Norquay’s neighbourhood centre.
  3. A realization by planners that this process will produce “gentrification” of the 32% low income residents of Norquay, however, one small step in rectifying this was an agreeable solution of providing basement suites in Duplexes to not only provide affordable accommodation for renters, but affordability for duplex owners.
  4. The cancellation of any “down zoning” for RS1 (planning originally wanted 0.70 FSR to be brought down to 0.40 FSR in newly zoned areas) which would effectively strip the neighbourhood of any defense against bad construction techniques, and quick for profit change.

The Neighbourhood Centres program has changed forever because of the above four points, however, what the city planners still needs to learn is that working separately

  1. Planners and Residents do not know what is best for our community.
  2. Closed room planning has destroyed public confidence in the process, and limits public participation thru its unilateral one-sidedness.

To council and planners I strongly urge this characterization of Norquay Neighbours be retabled in the report to consider the value of this grassroots group, not only its challenges to the planning process but how its opposition to STONE AGE REZONING helped create small steps towards “Placemaking” which is the yearning of any MODERN DAY PLANNING MOVEMENT.

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